Community Board 9’s Pat Jones Talks About the Future of Manhattanville

The day before CityLand met with Manhattan Community Board 9’s Pat Jones, Borough President Scott Stringer announced his recommendation in support of Columbia University’s expansion plan—the same plan Community Board 9 rejected because it conflicts with the proposed development plan Ms. Jones helped draft. While most people would be deflated by such a turn of events, Ms. Jones remained calm and focused, as she sat down with CityLand to discuss the future of Manhattanville.

Raised in Corona, and a graduate of Flushing High School, Ms. Jones has only left the city for the four years that she attended Michigan State University. She returned to New York to work for JP Morgan, eventually becoming a Managing Director. After settling into a brownstone in the Hamilton Heights Historic District, Ms. Jones volunteered to work at her community board in 2002. In addition to her position as Vice-Chair for Community Board 9, Ms. Jones is the Chair of the West Harlem Development Corporation and a board member of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone.

The Community’s Board. Ms. Jones recognizes that community boards are not perfect. The board is made up of volunteers with “limited time, limited expertise and limited resources.” But she feels that the boards are perhaps the most dedicated institutions in city government. Ms. Jones is an example of such dedication. She has “no political aspirations and nothing to gain financially,” yet has thrown herself into her work with the board, and, as Co-Chair of its 197-a Task Force, reached out to the Pratt Center for Community Development to help draft a development plan for northern Manhattan.

One Neighborhood, Two Plans. Section 197-a of the City Charter authorizes a community board to sponsor plans for the development and growth of its community. If approved by the Planning Commission and adopted by the City Council, these plans shape the actions and policies of City agencies. Ms. Jones helped draft a plan for Manhattanville that emphasizes affordable housing and industrial job opportunities. According to Ms. Jones, the 197-a plan “reflects the needs of the community.”

In contrast, Columbia’s expansion plan sees community needs differently. It calls for building new academic facilities, particularly in the biotechnology field. 4 CityLand 89 (July 15, 2007). Ms. Jones feels that there is a disconnect between Columbia’s plan and the needs of Manhattanville residents, many of whom do not have college degrees or the skills necessary to take advantage of these new academic opportunities. She feels that the City should provide opportunities to everybody, and embrace a “spectrum of skills, not focus solely on college graduates.”

Whose Domain is Eminent? The official policy of the board is that it would be inappropriate for Columbia to expand through eminent domain. Ms. Jones feels that it is one thing if the government wanted to take private property for a park or highway; another if they are taking it to convey to a private institution. “It’s a value proposition that denigrates the very existence” of Manhattanville residents and “devalues their contributions.” Ms. Jones feels that the City should not abandon the local residents of Manhattanville, who kept the community together by their own hard work and sheer will during its past drug and crime epidemic. She feels that they deserve some credit for “sticking it out, keeping it together, and revitalizing it.”

Manhattanville’s Future. Ms. Jones doesn’t believe the board is in competition with Columbia, despite the fact that the Planning Commission will consider both plans at the same time. The challenge, according to her, is to take the two plans and “push them together to create something that makes sense.” She says that it’s not a question of whether or not Columbia has a future in Manhattanville, but rather what kind of future. Ms. Jones sees no problem with Columbia “as a neighbor” but is wary of the institution “acting as a blunt transforming force.” She’s not interested in “Manhattanville becoming Columbiaville.”

Ms. Jones doesn’t have any grand predictions on how the Planning Commission or City Council will vote, but would “love to fast forward 10 years from now” to see what the city will look like at that time. Right now “things are happening so fast, that it’s hard to keep track.” — Sami Y. Naim

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